Finally, I’ve found an aspect of modern-day China that has changed little, if at all, from my first time in China almost 30 years ago as a graduate student. Long-distance train travel.
As I write this, I’m occupying a hard-to-come by seat in the dining car of a Beijing-Shenzhen train that left the capital about 30 hours ago. I boarded the train in Ganzhou, a lovely small city in southern Jiangxi, a six hour train trip to Shenzhen.
It was not my plan to take the train. I got to Ganzhou on the plane, and expected to return to Shenzhen the same way. But, the tickets on today’s one daily flight were all sold out, so I rushed with little time to spare to the Ganzhou train station. A helpful policeman let me slip through a locked door. I joined a mobile throng of other passengers boarding in Ganzhou, during the train’s ten minute stopover.
It was a stroke of good luck. This is the first time I’ve been on a long-distance train in China in a decade. The few times I get to take the train these days it’s always on the new high-speed rail lines that connect more and more of the big cities in China. For example, the new high-speed trains connecting Guangzhou and Shenzhen, as well as Shanghai and Hangzhou, have airline type seats, no proper dining car, and large antiseptic toilets. These trains travel at around 200mph on specially-designed and newly-laid tracks.
The traditional long-distance trains, by contrast, rumble along at about one-quarter that speed, on rail lines that often were first carved through China by the British, in the 19th century. The toilets are cramped and consist of a perch above a four-inch diameter hole in the floor.
Then and now, most of the cars of the train are what are called “yingwo”, (硬卧）meaning “hard berth”. Each “yingwo” car has 45 narrow bunks, stacked three-high. At the end of each car is a furnace with boiling water for tea.
It was mid-afternoon. Passengers in the “yingwo” cars were mainly lounging around, or snoozing in their bunks. The sound inside was as I remembered it: of quiet conversation punctuated by the occasional “snap” of a watermelon seed being cracked open.
There was one first class “ruanwo” （软卧） or “soft sleeper” car, as there was when I was took a train from Guangzhou to Beijing in 1981. It was fully occupied by passengers who had boarded the day before in Beijing. I walked by slowly, remembering that first trip – the snuggly warmth of the cotton duvet, and the anti-macassars on the back of the seats.
The soft sleeper car has lost none of its special allure for me. In the years since that first train trip in China, I’ve traveled on Mediterranean yachts, private jets and first-class trains across Europe. But, they just don’t compare to the “soft sleeper” car in China, There is no other transport quite as cozy and rejuvenating.
The dining car has twelve tables a meter long, each of which sits 4 people, shoulder-to-shoulder. Food prices, at around Rmb35 per serving, are certainly a lot higher than when I first started riding the rail in China in 1981. Back then, you could eat a whole meal and get change back from a one yuan note.
The food isn’t quite as good as I remember it. It was all pre-cooked and served lukewarm. But, it still remains one of the world’s singular travel experiences, dining on proper cuisine at a proper table, as a train trundles gently through China.
Ticket prices remain a bargain. The fare for the six-hour trip from Ganzhou to Shenzhen: Rmb75 ($11). That is about one-tenth the price of the one-way air ticket. The plane is obviously much faster. But, the total time, door-to-door, is not all that different, once you factor in the trip to and from the airport, the 90 minutes spent checking in and waiting for flight departure, and the hour flying time.
Today’s train is right on schedule. That too, hasn’t changed much. For generations, trains were the primary form of long-distance travel in China, and the trains tracks were the principal meridians along which the country’s population flowed.
These days, long-distance trains are losing out to planes and private cars. But, for me, the chance today to ride the train is a precious and vivid reminder of my own first days in China, and the awesome changes China has undergone during that time.
Back then, railroad workers had a reputation for being rather curt and uninterested in passengers’ comfort. On that front too, not all that much has changed, judging from this one trip. Passengers, for the most part, are treated with a mix of lethargy, disdain and mild despotism. Trains are perhaps the last place in China where the proletariat still does any dictating.